Native American Student Chiitaanibah Johnson Claims Genocide-Denying Professor Expelled Her from History Course
A Native American student at Cal State Sacramento claims a history professor who denies the European genocide of indigenous North Americans tried to have her expelled from his course.
Indian Country Today reports Chiitaanibah Johnson, a 19-year-old Navajo and Maidu sophomore, disagreed when her United States history professor, Maury Wiseman, allegedly denied that Native Americans did not face genocide in the centuries following their first contact with Europeans.
“[Wiseman] was talking about Native America and he said the word genocide,” Johnson told Indian Country Today. “He paused and said ‘I don’t like to use that word because I think it is too strong for what happened’ and ‘genocide implies that it was on purpose and most native people were wiped out by European diseases.'”
Although offended, Johnson says she did not immediately respond to Wiseman’s assertion because she wanted to be prepared to back up her argument. Two days later, she spoke out in class after Wiseman discussed the Iroquois Confederacy and Portuguese expeditions. She claims the professor emphasized the bravery of the Portuguese and the fact that native people were killing each other before Europeans arrived, without addressing the role of slavery.
“I raised my hand and I said, ‘I understand why we’re talking about the Portuguese people because it explains how they got to America. But I do not think it is fair to talk about Portuguese people as if they were only poor and brave,'” Johnson told Indian Country Today. “They became rich by raping and enslaving the indigenous lands and people that they ‘discovered.'”
When Johnson asked Wiseman about his stance on the Native American genocide, the professor allegedly repeated his belief that the word did not accurately describe what happened.
“I stood up and started reading from an article by the United Nations that said: ‘Genocide is the deliberate killing of another people, a sterilization of people and/or a kidnapping of their children,’ and he said, ‘That is enough,’” said Johnson, referring to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and ratified by the United States and 145 other nations.
Article II of the CPGG defines genocide as:
Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the groupCausing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Estimates of the pre-Columbian indigenous population of the Americas vary greatly, with most scholars believing that around 50 million people inhabited the Western hemisphere at the time of first contact with European explorers. Estimates of the North American indigenous population in 1492 range from just over 2 million (Ubelaker 1976) to 7 million people (Russell Thornton) to as many as 18 million (Dobyns 1983).
The vast majority of indigenous Americans were killed by diseases introduced by Europeans, but large numbers also fell victim to warfare, enslavement, massacres, forced relocation and degradation and deprivation of essential natural resources. By 1890, the US Census Bureau counted just 248,000 indigenous people remaining in the country.
In 2000, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) formally apologized for committing “ethnic cleansing” of Native Americans, citing “the deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children” as well as “destructive efforts to annihilate Indian cultures.”
“You have to tell the truth,” said Johnson, who told Indian Country Today that Wiseman apologized to the class for her disruption before dismissing everyone and telling her she “hijacked” his lesson and that she would be “disenrolled and expelled” from the course. She said she feels “overwhelmed” by the ordeal and “disappointed” that none of her fellow students came to her defense.
“I had zero support from anybody in the classroom,” Johnson lamented. “All of the research I had done was very traumatizing—to read about babies being slammed into rocks being held from their ankles, to hear of people being lit on fire while they were still alive, to hear of them being disemboweled, and having their arms and hands chopped off.”
Some Cal State Sacramento students spoke out in defense of Professor Wiseman.
“If you’re impeding other students’ learning, you should be removed,” student Stefany Ensor told CBS Sacramento. “If you have that big of an issue with it, then talk to the teacher after class.”
Others expressed support for Johnson.
“That’s exactly what happened to them, there was a genocide with Native Americans,” said student Justine Harston. “I think we like to stay away from using terminology that makes us guilty. It was a genocide they tried to wipe [the Native Americans] out so that they could take over the land.”
Cal State Sacramento issued a statement expressing its concern over the incident and clarifying that Wiseman did not have the power to expel Johnson from his course:
Sacramento State was very concerned upon learning about this incident and the allegations surrounding it. The University would like to make it clear that our student, Chiitaanibah Johnson, was not expelled or disenrolled from this history course. Under University policy, a professor cannot unilaterally disenroll a student from a class.
University President Robert S. Nelsen added that he was personally looking into the incident.
“I take this matter very seriously,” Nelsen is quoted by CBS Sacramento. “I intend to talk to Chiitaanibah Johnson as we work to gather all the information necessary to resolve this situation positively.”
A note posted to Johnson’s front door said she hopes to “reach an amicable and just resolution to this issue.”